Facing Your Fear of Falling

A fall can be scary, especially when you are in your 70s or older, but being afraid of falling can be just as detrimental to your health. That’s because that fear can lead to a vicious cycle of inactivity. Inactivity leads to weakness, and that can make you more likely to ultimately fall and injure yourself—the very thing you feared to begin with. Studies have shown that one-third of adults over 65 are so afraid of falling that they’ve stopped the very physical activities that would actually make them stronger and healthier. Health care providers and researchers say that, as you age, you need to face your fear of falling and replace the cycle of inactivity with a cycle of activity that includes strength training.

“I am glad that you guys talk about this issue. We are trying to undo decades of stereotyping, in which people have gotten it into their heads that getting older means slowing down, getting weaker, getting frailer.” Jennifer Ailshire, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Gerontology and Sociology at USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Dr. Ailshire told StrongPath that strength training, especially the kind that incorporates all of your muscles, will improve your balance and your mobility.

“Sarcopenia—the loss of muscle mass as your age—puts you in a very vulnerable physiological state for a whole bunch of problems, including increasing your risk of falls. So, you really are trying to safeguard yourself against some of the declines that come with aging. Strength training reduces your risk of having balance problems, particularly your risk of falling,” according to Dr. Ailshire.

StrongPath asked the doctor what she would tell someone who was afraid to start the strength training. “There is no question, you have to move, and you just have to find a safe way to do it.” She recommended starting with an exercise that most mirrors the movement you do in your day-to-day life. “For an older adult, doing something like chair stands—where you do repetitions of standing up from the chair—could always be done with a table next to you. You can even hold onto it while doing the exercise. It will make you feel safer and it might actually make you safer.”

Chair stands will strengthen your abdomen and thighs. Strength training with weights at least three times a week have been shown to improve balance, according to a study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. The National Council on Aging offers courses around the country aimed at helping men and women over 65 face their fear of falling through exercise courses.

Dr. Ailshire told StrongPath that “aging is whatever you make it out to be. People really need to choose a path towards aging that reflects their desires and preferences and not resign themselves to a path they think they should be on because they are getting older.”

Again, it is all about breaking the cycle of inactivity. “You can’t choose to not be active. That is kind of like a death sentence these days,” said Dr. Ailshire. “At any point, no matter how frail someone is, anyone can do basic conditioning. We should never discount the ability of the body to reshape and reformulate itself. No matter how frail you are you can slowly condition your way back to a completely different state. It is never too late for someone to start strength training.”

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